Poll marks end of the ethno-political kingpin era

As the General Election approaches, much of the attention is focused on the presidential contest between Jubilee Party’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Mr Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance.

But for lower levels of political office, the competition for the influential posts of Governor, Senator, MP and MCA will be no less fierce.

Devolution has raised the stakes of local politics, influencing the national debate and broader governance trend, bringing with it notable implications for Kenyan politics.

While devolution has provided for stronger local representation, it has heightened local competition for power, elevating the risk of localised violence.


A fragmented field of candidates and a tight electoral contest across the country will contribute to an election in which a President may be without a majority backing in the legislature.

In the long term, devolution and separation of powers will change the foundations of Kenyan politics as the era of ethno-political kingpins recedes.  

Kenya’s 2010 Constitution fundamentally changed the country’s governance structures, devolving power and resource allocation to 47 counties.


Access to significant resources, large budgets and the discretion to decide how to use them has made elected office in the county governments (especially that of governor) a significant and hotly contested prize.

In the short term, increased competition for control of counties is creating a less predictable political landscape.

Presidential candidates have had to be more cautious in their handling of local political issues and speak more to county issues; this has been shown by the resistance to calls from the presidential candidates for six-piece voting.


This decentralisation of democracy has created new flashpoints for political violence, as various candidates resort to the use of ethnic politics, incitement, sometimes violence, to intimidate their opponents.

Over the longer term, devolution has set in motion political shifts which are fundamentally changing Kenyan politics, weakening the ethno-political kingpin as the devolution of resources and power makes it more difficult for one person to lay claim to the support of a whole region or tribe.

This, in turn, will change the nature of national and presidential politics, as being the governor of a county becomes the preferred stepping stone to the presidency.


This will in future create the need for broad-based multi-ethnic coalitions to deliver the presidency.

The 2010 constitution also made significant changes to the way Kenya is governed.

Parliament is now a completely separate arm of government with the powers to create and pass legislation, budgets and approve the President’s appointees.


These powers have largely gone unused since the 2013 election due to the President’s party holding a majority in both Houses of Parliament.

The 2017 election could change this dynamic drastically.

Like county elections, the race for positions in the legislature has become complex and highly competitive; and we could see significant changes in the make-up of parliament, which has the potential to add substantial complexity and uncertainty to governance in Kenya.


The key factor will be whether the party or coalition of the winning presidential candidate manages to secure a voting majority in Parliament.

If not, this presents two scenarios each with very different dynamics that a President will have to navigate in order to govern effectively.

In the first scenario, no party manages to win a clear majority, which will enable them to pass measures on a party line vote alone.


The balance of power will be held by legislators who are independent or from small unaffiliated parties.

To pass legislation, budgets and get appointees approved, the President will have to strike deals with these MPs.

In the second scenario, the party or coalition that opposes the President wins the majority.


This may lead to a gridlock as Parliament could pass measures that curtail the President’s agenda, resulting in vetos and deadlock, adding significant instability and uncertainty to the economy.

Additionally, an opposition controlled Parliament will make much more use of Parliament’s oversight and investigative powers, seeking to embarrass the government through exposure of corruption, scandal and non-performance.

Most importantly, this election marks the end of an era of the ethno-political kingpin.

There is no clear successor to either Mr Kenyatta’s or Mr Odinga’s political positions as national figures.

The importance, power and potential of county and parliamentary positions has been recognised by politicians and the electorate, making these races highly competitive and consequential.

The writer is an Intelligence and Analysis Consultant at Africapractice EA Ltd

What do these scenarios portend for our elections which are only 15 days away?

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